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VOL. 128 | NO. 41 | Thursday, February 28, 2013

Commission, City and Suburbs Agree on Schools Master

By Bill Dries

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Attorneys for the Shelby County Commission, the city of Memphis and suburban leaders agree that a special master should be appointed by Memphis Federal Court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays.

The master would generally monitor progress toward the August date for the consolidation of Shelby County’s two public school systems.

The attorneys filed their positions at the end of the business day Wednesday, Feb. 27, the deadline Mays set for responses to his suggestion Monday during a status conference with all sides in the schools lawsuit.

Attorney Lori Patterson, representing the county commission, wrote the duties of a special master should be “to monitor the meetings of the Shelby County School board in order to report to the court the progress made in implementing the consolidation.”

And she added the special master “should be provided with such authority as this court sees fit to assure that progress is made” in adopting recommendations made by the consolidation planning commission, appointing a merger superintendent and adopting a budget for the first fiscal year of the schools merger.

The commission also suggested Mays appoint FedEx Corp. general counsel Christine Richards, who served on the planning commission or retired Circuit Court Judge and former Memphis City Schools board member George Brown as the special master.

Through their attorneys, the leaders of all six suburban towns and cities in Shelby County said in their filing that they also support the move to a special master.

Their attorney, Tom Cates, wrote that they believe “such an appointment is in all parties’ best interests and in the best interests of the students of Shelby County.”

On the question of what a special master should oversee, Cates quotes from the 2011 consent decree agreed to by all parties that the special master could be appointed “to assist in implementing the consent decree and to resolve disputes among the parties as to any aspect of the transition to a combined school system or the operation of the separate school systems.”

The suburban leaders also suggested the special master “engage in fact gathering to determine the most pressing issues and decisions to be made.” The filing also suggests the master set “fixed dates for the resolution of those issues” including recommendations on what happens if the school board doesn’t make decisions by those deadlines.

The suburban leaders did not suggest any names for the position in the Wednesday filing.

Memphis City Council Attorney Allan Wade, writing for the city council and the city administration, said with 124 days until the Aug. 5 start of the first school year of the merger, the countywide school board has met none of the critical milestones for a merged system.

“Additionally, the board has failed to adhere to its own internal deadlines,” Wade wrote. “Based on these facts along, the appointment of a special master is warranted at a minimum to determine if the current board has the present ability and/or inclination to complete the above tasks and others necessary for a merged school system to begin in August 2013.”

The city’s position is that one or more special masters may be necessary and suggested Richards as well as planning commission chairwoman Barbara Prescott and/or planning commissioner Staley Cates.

The city also advocates that the planning commission’s set of recommendations should become “the default plan” in the case of any disputes in which the school board can’t make a decision on the recommendations.

In the response, Wade highlighted two operational steps that “scream for immediate attention.”

One is the selection of a merger superintendent “if only for a two year period.”

The other is “implementation of the closure of underutilized schools in the city and county systems.”

“The city parties would respectfully suggest that the special master should be required to make recommendations to the court and the school board on these two topics immediately,” he wrote. “And in default of the school board making a decision within a short period of time, that the court make the decision on these issues in consultation with the special master.”

Mays did not indicate at Monday’s status conference when he might decide if he will appoint a special master.

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